David Bellos, The Novel of the Century:
The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables
When first published on April 4, 1862, Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables was an immediate best seller – in today’s parlance, a “blockbuster” but also, at 1,900 pages in the original French, a “doorstopper” (the English translation was a mere 1,500 pages). Hugo in 1862 was among France’s most revered writers, but was then living in exile on the Channel Island of Guernsey, having fled several years earlier from what he considered the dictatorial regime of Louis-Napoléon, better known as Napoléon III. Hugo intended Les Misérables, his epic tale of reconciliation and redemption, with its searing portraits of the poor and those at society’s margins, to be the culmination of his already illustrious career as a novelist, poet and playwright. It didn’t take long after Les Misérables’ initial publication for Hugo to conclude that his novel would easily meet his lofty aspirations.
Over a century and half later, Hugo’s Les Misérables remains in the forefront of literary classics, still read in the original French and in countless translations in all the world’s major languages. Within weeks of its publication, moreover, Les Misérables was turned into a play, and in the 20th century became the subject of more adaptations for radio, stage and screen than any just about any other literary work. But David Bellos, professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University, worries that Les Misérables’ extraordinary staying power and its enduring mass market appeal has led too many to dismiss the novel as a work that falls below the level of great art.
In The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, Bellos seeks to dispel such notions by getting inside Victor Hugo’s mind and his time as he pieced together Les Misérables. Much like Alice Kaplan’s Looking For “The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, reviewed here in April, Bellos’ work could be considered a “biography of a book.” In an introductory chapter, “The Journey of Les Misérables,” Bellos provides an overview to the novel, its setting and its multiple twists and improbable turns, all highly useful for readers who have not read the novel for several years if at all.
Here he introduces the novel’s principal characters: Jean Valjean, famously sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, whose twenty-year quest to rehabilitate himself constitutes the novel’s “narrative backbone” (p.xviii); Fantine, an abandoned single mother who loses her job, falls into prostitution and meets an early death; her illegitimate daughter Cosette, entrusted to Valjean’s care after her mother’s death; Javert, the policeman who pursues Valjean relentlessly throughout the novel; the inn-keeping couple the Thénardiers, and their urchin children, Éponine and Gavroche; and Marius, a student and budding political activist who falls in love with Cosette.
Les Misérables consists of five parts, with 48 “books” (Bellos too has divided his work into five parts, surely not coincidentally). Hugo’s Part I is entitled “Fantine;” Part II, “Cosette,” in which the young girl is saved by Valjean from cruel foster parents after her mother’s death; Part III, “Marius,” focusing on the student’s life on the barricades in his fight to overcome the monarchy; Part IV, “The Idyll of Rue Plumer and the Epic of Rue Saint Denis,” two Parisian streets, the first where the love affair of Cosette and Marius blossomed, the second where Marius fought in a political barricade; and Part V, simply “Jean Valjean.” Each of the 48 books has chapters, 365 in all. With many of the chapters quite short, Bellos suggests a chapter per day over the course of a year for those who want to read or reread the novel.
The individuals who surrounded Hugo as he wrote Les Misérables loom as large in Bellos’ work as the characters in the novel itself. Hugo and his wife Adèle Foucher had five children, the first of whom died in infancy. Their oldest daughter Léopoldine died in a boating accident at age 19, the “gravest emotional wound in Hugo’s life “ (p.98). Their last child, daughter Adèle, kept a diary from an early age that provides a major portion of the record about the evolution of Les Misérables,. Adèle was in the forefront of an innovative campaign to market the novel across Europe (her unrequited love for a British military officer was the subject of the 1975 François Trauffaut film, The Story of Adèle H). Hugo’s older son Charles also played a major role in arranging for publication of Les Misérables, while younger son François-Victor became a literary heavyweight in his own right through his translations into French of the major works of Shakespeare.
An additional presence throughout Bellos’ account is Hugo’s long-term mistress, Juliette Drout, an aspiring actress who followed Hugo into exile. While living in quarters separate from the Hugo family, Juliette became Hugo’s regular traveling companion and served informally as his secretary and confidante (Juliette was traveling with Hugo when he learned of daughter Léopoldine’s death). But Bellos adds that Hugo was a “serial philanderer” (p.30), with ample supplements to his on-going extra-marital liaison with Juliette and his legal attachment to wife Adèle.
Les Misérables begins in 1815 and extends to 1835. Hugo wrote the novel in fits and starts between 1845 and 1862. The period between 1815 and 1862 encompasses some of the most dramatic upheavals of France’s turbulent and often violent 19th century. The final defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo and the “Bourbon restoration” of Louis XVIII as a constitutional monarch took place in the fateful year 1815. By 1862, France was in the midst of the “Second Empire” of Louis-Napoléon (Napoléon III), the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, who in a coup d’etat in 1851 had ended France’s Second Republic, the event that sent Hugo into exile. In addition to the 1851 coup, the first half of the century witnessed periodic uprisings against the government, among them: the 1830 “July Revolution,” which ousted Louis XVIII’s successor Charles X in favor of Louis-Philippe d’Orleans; a mini-1832 rebellion which unsuccessfully sought to reverse the 1830 July Revolution, an uprising critical to Hugo’s novel but less so to French history; and the February 1848 revolution in which Louis-Napoléon deposed Louis-Philippe and established the Second French Republic, an uprising in which Hugo was directly involved.
Bellos’ account shines in its illumination of how these events and the broader currents of 19th century French history affected both Hugo himself and the novel he was working on. To enhance our understanding of the novel and its seventeen year gestation period, Bellos includes what he terms “interludes,” short digressions on diverse but pragmatic subjects, such as regional and class differences in language in Hugo’s time; money and credit in 19th century France; intellectual property protection and the technical process involved in publishing books in the mid-19th century; and transportation in the time of Les Misérables (people walked a lot more then than they do today). Bellos also delves into how Hugo’s political and religious views entered into his novel.
Although Les Misérables is a “progressive” work which “surely expresses moral outrage at the plight of the poor,” (p.219), Bellos cautions that it should not be considered a tract for the emerging views of the European left. Subtly, however, the novel traced out a “limited if still ambitious program of social action” (p.202-03): more humane criminal justice, with easier entry back into society for offenders, more education, and more jobs for the uneducated. Hugo, who had never been baptized and did not subscribe to any established religion or cult, considered Les Misérables to be a religious but not Catholic work. Hugo’s novel argues for “natural religion” capable of bridging the conflicts between Catholics and non-Catholics, and between believers and non-believers, conflicts which in Hugo’s view exacerbated the disparities between rich and poor. Les Misérables is thus, as Bellos puts it, a “work of reconciliation — between the classes, but also between the conflicting currents that turn our own lives into storms. It is not a reassuring tale of the triumph of good over evil, but a demonstration of how hard it is to be good” (p.xxiv).
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Bellos notes that Les Misérables was already an “historical” novel when it first appeared in 1862. With its story set in a past that had ended over a quarter of a century earlier, the novel could immediately be read as an “exercise in nostalgia for a vanished world . . . [and as] an unintended guide to the way things used to be” (p.54). To dig into the novel’s 1815-to-1835 period is thus to dig into Hugo’s own adolescence and his formative early adult years. The son of a soldier who fought in Napoleon Bonaparte’s wars, Hugo turned 13 in 1815.
A precocious literary youth, by 1815 Hugo had already demonstrated a flair for poetry. By 1832, the year he turned 30, Hugo was among France’s best-known poets who had published a handful of novels, among them the immensely popular Notre Dame de Paris (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). 1832 marked the death of Germany’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the “undisputed eminence of European literature for the preceding half-century.” Bellos notes that Hugo considered himself the logical candidate to step into Goethe’s shoes as “European genius-in-chief” (p.4). 1832 was also the year of the unsuccessful two-day revolt against the July monarchy, a minor episode in France’s 19th century which Hugo elevated to the center of Les Misérables through Marius’ participation in its events.
The first draft of Hugo’s novel, whose title was initially Les Misères, was written in Paris between November 1845 and February 1848. Although this draft no longer exists, scholars have concluded that its plot corresponds closely to that of the final version. 1845 was also the year when Hugo was appointed a peer in France’s upper legislative chamber. He was working on Marius’ involvement in the 1832 upheaval at the time of the 1848 uprising against the regime of King Louis-Philippe, and found himself, improbably, on the front lines defending the regime – an “experience like no other Hugo had ever had, and not easy to square with his views, his feelings, and his position” (p.47-48). Hugo’s role in in the suppression of the popular revolt of 1848 was, Bellos argues, “what he had to come to terms with to carry on with his book, and what he [had] to come terns with in his book if it [was] to be the ‘social and moral panorama’ that he intended it to be” (p.113-14).
Hugo’s position as an establishment figure ended definitively when he became one of the most outspoken and relentless critics of Napoleon III’s 1851 coup d’état. Forced into exile, he fled initially to Brussels and from there to the Channel Islands, outposts of the British crown off the coast of France. After living first on the Channel Island of Jersey, Hugo and his entourage landed in Guernsey in 1855, with his draft novel gathering dust in a trunk. He established residence for his family at an elaborate mansion known as Hauteville House, overlooking the sea. Juliette was assigned to a smaller house nearby. In 1859, Napoleon III issued an amnesty to those who had opposed his seizure of power in 1851. Many of the exiles on Channel Islands chose to return to France, but Hugo elected to stay. But it was not until April 25, 1860, that Hugo went back to the trunk that had followed him from Jersey and pulled out the musty pages of the work he had spent little time on since 1848.
From that date onward, Bellos’ narrative gathers momentum as he traces the frenetic period that followed. By this time, Hugo had changed the name of his work from Les Misères to Les Misérables, his innovative term that shifted the meaning from the “poor,” “pitiable” or “despicable” to something more inclusive that suggests solidarity among the less fortunate: a “moral and social identity that had no name before” (p.103). Hugo finally settled on the names of most of his characters in early 1861. These names have become so familiar, Bellos observes, that it “takes an effort to realize that they all had to be invented, for none of them was taken from the existing stock of French first and family names” (p.115). Hugo did not finalize Jean Valjean’s name until March 1861. Previously he had been Jean Tréjan, Jacques Sou and Jean Vlajean.
Hugo’s work was technically covered by the same contract that had paid him in the 1830s for Notre Dame de Paris. Because of concerns that the novel might be subject to censorship or litigation if published in France, Hugo shifted to Albert Lacroix and his Brussels-based, politically liberal micro-publishing firm. Hugo needed a buy out of his original contract and overall wanted more for Les Misérables than had ever been paid to an author for any book. He largely got it, nearly 3 million British pounds in today’s currency, with about 40% of that amount being paid to him up-front, in cash, prior to publication. Hugo’s deal with Lacroix, worked out in a single day when Lacroix visited Hugo at Hauteville House without having read the draft of the novel, was thus the “contract of the century,” to use the title of one of Bellos’ chapters.
Hugo got his cash payment on time, in December 1860, because Oppenheim Bank of Brussels agreed to lend money to Lacroix to pay for the book. For Hugo, debt and crime were two sides of the same coin, and Bellos notes the irony of a novel “so firmly opposed to debt being launched on the back of a major loan – probably the first loan ever made by a merchant bank to finance a book,” thereby placing Les Misérables “at the vanguard of . . . the use of venture capital to fund the arts” (p.143).
Hugo was still working on the latter portions of the novel when Parts I and II appeared in print on April 4, 1862. A full two months later, on June 14, 1862, Hugo “corrected the last galley of the last volume of Les Misérables and dispatched it to Brussels.” Over the course of the previous nine months, he had “turned a single-copy manuscript of a still unfinished work into the greatest publishing sensation of his age” (p.260).
While Hugo was confined to Hauteville House finalizing his novel, daughter Adèle was in Paris serving as the publicity manager for its launch, working with her brother Charles and Lacroix, both in Brussels. Adèle had to raise the interest and enthusiasm level for the novel to a “pitch so high it would discourage the authorities from banning or seizing the book. But she also had to let not a scrap of it be seen in advance. The requirement to boost the book while keeping it secret made the publicity manager’s job a work of art” (p.223). Adèle promoted the book through a billboard campaign. She also gave advance portions to newspapers, but told them they couldn’t print them until she gave a go ahead. Thanks to the advance work, the book had been “trumped in all the media then available” in France, a “country that the author refused to enter” (p.228).
Les Misérables was to go on sale in other major European cities outside France at the same time. Adèle, Charles and Lacroix thus devised what Bellos labels the “first truly international book launch,” but with an infrastructure that was “barely ready for it: paddle steamers, a rail network that still had more gaps than connections, four-horse diligences and maybe, on the approaches to St. Petersburg, a jingling three-horse sleigh” (p.228).
From its initial appearances, there was an electricity attached to Hugo’s novel that is difficult for us to fathom more than a century and a half later. The first two parts of Les Misérables sold out in France in two days. The crush for the first copies “verged on a riot” (p.231). Groups of workers pooled their limited means to buy a copy of the book, passed it around among members of the group, and took turns reading its nearly 2,000 pages to fellow workers who were unable to read. But the French press did not share readers’ enthusiasm for Les Misérables. Left wing and socialist critiques were lukewarm; those in the right wing press were stinging.
Outside France, one recurring criticism of the novel was that it was too rooted in French history, and thus lacked deep meaning for non-French reading audiences. These criticisms were not unfounded, Bellos points out. Underlying Les Misérables was Hugo’s view that France was the “moral and intellectual powerhouse of the world,” with Les Misérables serving as the “first full formulation of the conventional explanation of the exceptional status of France” (p.235). One of the larger purposes of Les Misérables, which begins at the end of France’s revolutionary period, was to make the French Revolution the “well-spring of nineteenth-century civilization and so to heal the bleeding wound that it bequeathed to subsequent generations of French men and women” (p.38).
When the publisher of the first Italian translation of Les Misérables fretted that the legacy of the French Revolution had little relevance to his readers, Hugo responded with a “grandiose reply,” in which he “pulled out all the rhetorical stops” (p.237). Hugo said that while he did not know whether Les Misérables would be read by all, he had written it for everyone. “I write,” Hugo explained:
with a deep love for my country but without preoccupying myself with France more than any other nation. As I grow older I grow simpler and become increasingly a patriot of humanity. That is the trend of our times and the law of radiation of the French Revolution. To respond to the growing enlargement of civilization, books must stop being exclusively French, Italian, German, Spanish or English, and become European; more than that, human (p.237).
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As if to respond himself to the Italian publisher and others in Hugo’s time who considered Les Misérables too Franco-centric, Bellos concludes that the novel’s “moral compass,” extends “far beyond the history, geography, politics and economics of the world in which its story is set. The novel achieves the extraordinary feat of being at the same time an intricately realistic portrait of a specific place and time, a dramatic page-turner with masterful moments of theatrical suspense and surprise, an encyclopedia of facts and ideas and an easily understood demonstration of generous moral principles that we could do far worse than to apply to our lives today” (p.259). Bellos’ conclusion could also be considered a final riposte to those modern-day skeptics who doubt whether Les Misérables rises to the level of great art. Few readers of Bellos’ erudite yet easy-to-read account are likely to side with the skeptics.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 17, 2018